West German leader urging US to stick to softer tone on Soviets

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will be carrying one major message and one outside hope on his visit to Washington March 3 to 6. The message is that the West should keep the initiative vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.

The hope is that the succession in the Kremlin may give the continuing collective leadership there an excuse to moderate its counterproductive confrontation with the West over Euromis-siles.

The further hope - which has been revived since President Yuri Andropov's death - is that the Kremlin may still swallow its pride in time and deem it better to meet with President Reagan before rather than after his probable reelection.

This is the outlook in Bonn as constructed from conversations with chancellery officials and allied diplomats.

In Washington Dr. Kohl will, of course, begin by exchanging congratulations with his friend and political and temperamental look-alike, Ronald Reagan, over the successful start of NATO Euromissile deployments on schedule at the end of last year.

The two men will agree that momentum is working for rather than against the allies. The initial deployments are no longer a bitter controversy but have become a fait accompli.

They have thus finally been accepted as routine by the West German population - and the war scare that preceded their deployment has been abating, since world tensions have not risen after their deployment.

And this means that a resistant public no longer has to be exhorted to move off an immobile status quo.

Furthermore, the Soviet Union has been on the public defensive ever since it walked out of the nuclear arms control talks three months ago in protest at the NATO deployment. It is now the West that is visibly ready to negotiate on arms control at any time. It is Moscow that is visibly balking.

At this point, therefore - Kohl and Reagan will agree - quieter rhetoric in Bonn and Washington will do nicely.

So far so good.

The trickier discussions will come as the two leaders try to decide what to do next.

Here Kohl's advice will be that the West should not rest on its laurels and slip back into a cycle in which it is Moscow that makes peace proposals and the West that reacts negatively to them.

The West gained in public opinion by pressing for the current Stockholm confidence-building conference against Soviet reluctance, Kohl believes. It should continue to impress on the public its commitment to peace - and let any Soviet recalcitrance be shown for what it is.

Reagan's response to this counsel may depend a good deal on just what initiatives Kohl has in mind. But the feeling in the chancellery - especially after Kohl's meeting with US Vice-President George Bush in Moscow - is that Reagan should find such an approach compatible with his own current overture to Moscow.

Significantly, the West Germans date this overture not from the President's Jan. 16 speech, but from his excoriation in words but restraint in action in responding to the Soviet shooting down of the Korean airliner last September. (Significantly, too, they express some surprise at the extent to which they find the Soviets ready to credit the change in American rhetoric.)

In this context government sources in Bonn are quick to point out the limits of their expectations. They, together with the Americans and other NATO allies, all agree that no substantive concessions should be offered to Moscow just for a Soviet return to the negotiating table.

The West Germans have been toying with several procedural or negotiating offers that might conceivably raise American eyebrows, however. In particular, Kohl has consistently advocated a Soviet-American summit, and the West Germans would clearly be satisfied with a much more modest outcome to such a summit than the White House has heretofore accepted.

The West Germans, like the Americans, insist such a summit should be ''well prepared.'' For the West Germans this would necessarily include a moratorium on propaganda by both sides and very secret prior exploration by the Americans and Soviets of what they could agree on as a common declaration at the end of the meeting.

On that declaration, the West Germans would accept as a sufficient achievement an agreement to resume the strategic nuclear arms control talks in the near future - with the proviso that concrete results or expectations in this area could also lead to both sides taking up the Euromissile talks again.

The West Germans would go further and define it as a great success for both sides if a summit could give an immediate green light to both sets of nuclear talks.

In effect, Bonn's tactics would thus be to ease the painful Soviet retreat from Moscow's present boycott of nuclear arms control talks by the simple expedient of advertising it as a Soviet (as well as American) victory.

The question of timing then arises: Is it too soon for such a Soviet switch? Would the Soviets lose too much face in sitting down with the arch capitalist Reagan within months of the Soviet walkout from the nuclear arms control talks?

Here the West Germans give an upbeat answer. Tactically, they think the problem of Soviet face is easier to resolve with a general secretary in the Kremlin who was not personally associated with the Geneva walkout.

Substantively, they also see a strong incentive for the Soviets to begin to come to terms with Reagan before his reelection, at a time when he should be more forthcoming.

On the one hand, the West Germans suggest, the Soviets have by now a healthy respect for Reagan's toughness and America's ability to outspend them on weapons if there is no mutual arms control.

On the other, the West Germans say, Reagan has finally become ''calculable'' to the Soviets so that they need not fear he will return to public vituperation of them if they do respond to his overture.

In this context the West Germans see as a hopeful sign the new Soviet willingness to accept some on-site inspection in verifying any chemical-weapons ban.

Bonn does think that things would have to move very fast, however, for any Soviet-American summit to come off this year. Policymakers say everything would have to be in place by June, since they cannot imagine the Soviets helping Reagan's reelection by meeting with him any closer to the November vote.

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